• Keeping your car in tip-top shape

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    Last week, for the fourth time in its 10-year existence, my car’s “check engine” lamp went on. And stayed on — until I took it to Mario, the neighborhood mechanic for repair. People who know me well will probably not be surprised, but many others may wonder why I took it to the “talyer” down the road. Ten on ten, I will pay for an expensive vet visit for any of my six dogs, rather than take my car to an expensive repair shop. While the trade always recommends that we err on the side of caution, and take our cars only to authorized dealership service centers, I’ve recently bucked that convention. I tend to be a lot more practical when it comes to car maintenance, at least since the very recent past. After all, my car is off-warranty.

    The first time the said warning lamp went on was quite an occasion for me. I dropped everything and drove myself to the dealership, and had the mass airflow sensor replaced. The service advisor told me that it was good I took the car to them to straightaway, as this particular sensor malfunctioning could cause the engine to stall, leading to a potentially serious accident. The sensor was quickly replaced and has worked fine since.

    Another time, the lamp lit itself and required another sensor replaced. I can’t even recall which one it was, but it cost me another several thousand pesos: these sensors cost a lot of money. Whatever it is, where a check engine lamp is concerned, your best bet is the dealership or a fairly modern shop with the appropriate electronic diagnostic equipment. It saves you the grief of wondering whether the thing will go away on its own, or blow up (hopefully, not literally) into something major. This last time I got the warning signal, I went through my repair and maintenance history and had my spark plugs replaced instead. I noted that during a previous oil change, they had only cleaned the spark plugs and it seemed a good a time as any to replace them. Super Mario replaced my spark plugs and bingo, the lamp went off. Maybe I’m lucky, but so far the car is okay.

    Of course, the best way to make sure all this no longer happens is to subject your car to regular maintenance schedule.

    More than anyone, perhaps, the issue of car maintenance is really that much more important for women drivers. Keeping a car in tip-top shape has implications on personal safety and security. Women who drive solo just cannot afford to have a car misbehave when we are driving alone or late at night in unfamiliar places. We also do need to understand our cars better, and know our maintenance service schedules, especially when we prefer a basic service shop to a brand dealership, or when our cars are past warranty. The good thing is manufacturers have a standard preventive maintenance schedule for all their models. These schedules are cadenced either according to time or distance traveled. You’ll only need to choose the one more appropriate for you to check and maintain the most critical systems of your car.

    Speaking of critical systems, there is likely no failure more potentially lethal to any driver than brake failures. Prevent this by checking and replacing the brake fluid as often as necessary, along with the brake pads. Replace those as soon as safety becomes an issue. Every two years is good, sooner if need be.

    Trailing brakes as the most critical maintenance issue are tires. Tire wear could spell the difference between a safe trip and otherwise. Depending on how far you drive on a regular basis and your driving style, you could need a fresh set of tires after four or five years. The best way to confirm is using a tread depth gauge. Choose the best tires you can afford for that extra peace of mind.

    Two or three years ago, I was out with my office team for a night of dinner and karaoke. On the way home, the car refused to start. We called the Motolite delivery who promptly delivered to our spot somewhere near Jupiter a brand new battery. Problem solved, but not really, as it then started to overheat. Alas, it was not a battery issue but a broken alternator belt. Belts keep components like alternators and water pumps running. Timing belts, drive belts are tricky, and belts failing is just bad news. Luckily that night, only our forward motion ceased, but it can be much worse: like major engine work costing a lot of money. Check your manual or your dealer for replacement schedules.

    And now I’m back from where we started. The blessed check engine lamp. For my last warning lamp episode, it turned out to be something minor like worn out plugs. Your spark plug fires up the mixture of air and fuel in each your engine’s cylinders, creating the mini explosion that in turn creates the energy to power the car. At some point, you’ll need to replace them. Otherwise, you may suffer poor mileage, poor engine performance, fail an emissions test, or panic at having a check engine lamp light up.

    Other maintenance checks you’ll need to make time for involve filters and fluids. If your car is on warranty, you’ll only need to take it to your selected dealer and have it done. Most manufacturers now include the first sets of maintenance servicing as part of the specifications of the vehicle upon purchase. Post warranty though, you’ll need to figure whether you want to keep going to a dealership or doing it on your own. Either way, be guided by the manufacturer’s recommended preventive maintenance schedule.

    Stay safe, and always drive pretty.

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